Juneteenth forum urges Pitt to do more to increase Black students, faculty and staff


Black members of the Pitt community said Pitt has plenty of work to do to become a more equitable University

The “Juneteenth: A Prelude to True Social Justice and Equity at Pitt” event on June 19 featured a panel of several Black Pitt faculty, staff, students and alumni, who discussed the importance of Juneteenth, the legacy of the Black Action Society and the wave of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Tulsa, Okla.

Panelists included Chenits Pettigrew, assistant dean for faculty affairs and director of diversity programs at the Pitt School of Medicine; Curtiss Porter, a founding Black Action Society member; Dante Watson, a Pitt senior; Destiny Mann, vice president of Black Action Society; Oronde Sharif, curriculum coordinator for the Department of Africana Studies; Shenay Jeffrey, assistant director of PittServes; and Valerie Njie, president-elect of the Pitt Alumni Association.

Dana Thompson Dorsey, associate director for research and development at the Center for Urban Education, and Sherdina Harper, the cross-cultural programming coordinator and advisor for Student Affairs, moderated the event.

Shariff began the panel explaining the history of Juneteenth, a holiday African Americans celebrate to commemorate the ending of slavery throughout the U.S.

But the effects of slavery have continued to plague African Americans into modern times.

Spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, more than 40 Black Pitt students staged a takeover of the computer center in the Cathedral of Learning on Jan. 15, 1969, and demanded the University hire more Black faculty, recruit more Black students and create a Black studies program.

This protest led to the creation of the Africana Studies program and several initiatives aimed at improving life for Black faculty, staff and students.

However, that progress stalled over time, Pettigrew said, as the University began focusing its attention away from Black students.

“So today, I think that we’ve, in a sense, gotten away from our intentional focus on the African-American experience itself, trying to fold it into ‘equity and diversity’ and those kinds of things,” Pettigrew said. “But, in my opinion, we still need to take a very focused look on the experience of the Black students here at the University of Pittsburgh.”

The recent wave of protests across the country have shifted the attention back to African Americans, Porter said, and African-American students will be the ones who help inspire change on an institutional level.

“These uprisings in our nation will definitely have an impact upon institutions of higher education,” Porter said. “These things will eventually be brought into new laws, new policies, new directions for the nation, new impacts upon institutions of all stripes …. Smart institutions will get ahead of the curve.”

But Pitt still has plenty of work to do, Mann said, and Pitt needs to take steps to address Black communities surrounding the Oakland campus and the other schools in the region.

“I think that, currently, we neglect the people that are closest to us while we affect them the most,” Mann said. “I definitely think that they can be doing more to involve the Pittsburgh community.

Jeffrey agreed, adding that she’s shocked each year at the lack of Black students on campus.

To address these issues and make Pitt a more welcoming place for African Americans, the panelists said that Pitt needs to plan and fund more initiatives aimed at improving the number of Black Pitt faculty, staff and students across the board.

It’s not up to Pitt to make all these changes on its own, Njie said. A key difference between Black student organizations today and the Black Action Society of the past is that several different organizations are addressing multiple areas of the Black Diaspora.

These organizations have not always been united in their messaging, Njie said. But if the organizations unite and demand changes, they would be a force to be reckoned with.

“You guys do have more power than you think you have, but a lot of people are in different camps,” Njie said. “We didn’t have a lot of the different camps then, we spoke with one voice, and I know that things are different now, but I think that if we were to come together and work together … I think we would be in a better position to demand some of the things that were demanded (in the past). The University responded very quickly back then.”

Mann agreed that the Black student organizations needed more unity to affect change on campus.

“Somewhere along the way, we’ve become very individualistic,” Mann said. “We think if one person does well, we all do well instead of standing together in order to improve our entire community.”

Black student organizations are aware of these issues and have been focused on addressing them, Mann added. And with this focus comes the need for the University to provide the organizations with adequate resources.

Njie said there is an urgent need for unification and there’s no better time to push for it.

“Now is the time,” Njai said. “We can’t wait. We really do need to work very hard on this piece and get us back on track, get us back to what started in in 1968.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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